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Sisters Feud Over Ailing Mother's Fate

25 Mar 2007

By Tracy Breton

Two grown sisters are enmeshed in a bitter tug-of-war over what is in the best interest of their elderly mother and who should have control of her money.

The fight between Suzette Gebhard, 60, and Francine Ardito, 54, has spilled into Rhode Island's criminal courts. Before it's resolved, it will probably cost the sisters and their mother more than $100,000.

According to a psychiatrist, the war between the sisters has exacted a big psychological toll on their mother, a woman who's now 90 and suffers from dementia. He recommends that neither sister be allowed unsupervised visits with their mother and that she remain in an assisted-living facility, with a guardian who will "protect her from financial and other abuse or neglect."

As a result of the disagreement, Gebhard, a former president of the Rhode Island League of Women Voters who once ran for Congress, has been found in contempt, held overnight at the Adult Correctional Institutions and charged with obstruction of justice.

Ardito, a nurse who used to work at the Walter Reed Army Medical Center, was given power of attorney by her mother in 2004. But because of her fight with her sister, she has been stripped of the right to make decisions on behalf of her mother. Over the last nine months, Ardito has spent $50,000 in legal fees just to get to visit her again.

This "is a sick, toxic situation," says Superior Court Judge Alice B. Gibney.

The focus of the sisters' battle is a pint-sized widow, Laurette Borduas Eifrig. Raised in Canada, she worked as a nurse and then for many years as a French and Spanish teacher, while raising her two daughters in Connecticut and Pennsylvania. She suffers from memory loss and, for the last five years, has been blind. She is also hard of hearing.

Eifrig's thick eyeglasses do not help her to make out faces. But she is fiercely independent. She loves dice games, raspberry crepes and anything chocolate. On special occasions, she'll take a snifter of Bailey's Irish Cream. Judge Gibney says she's "a smart cookie," but someone with "obvious vulnerabilities." She maneuvers around her bedroom at Capitol Ridge, the assisted-living facility on Smith Street in Providence, using memory as a guide.

She chafes at the notion of anyone controlling her life and her money.

Laurette Eifrig and her late husband were hard-working and frugal. Her husband made his living as a ball-bearing salesman, and she taught school. The sisters were not particularly close, but generally they got along.

In her golden years, Eifrig has been generous with her daughters. She gave $70,000 to Ardito and her husband for the mortgage on their house in Virginia. She gave Gebhard $50,000 after her divorce.

Eifrig still has considerable savings. According to her guardian, Paula M. Cuculo, she has about $430,000 and gets about $1,400 a month in Social Security and pension.

In 1993 - 12 years after her husband died - Eifrig moved from Pennsylvania to Reston, Va., to live near her daughter Francine and her only granddaughter. She found an apartment about a mile from the Arditos' home.

After Eifrig became blind, she became dependent on Ardito, who took her grocery shopping, to doctors' appointments and out to dinner. Ardito visited her every day.

Gebhard would go to Virginia for visits once or twice a year. Her mother didn't like to visit her in Rhode Island, Eifrig said, because Gebhard led a busy social life. Going out all the time made Eifrig tired.

In 1995, Eifrig established a trust, which she would amend three times. The last amendment, made in 2004, gives Ardito $200,000 more than Gebhard. It also makes Ardito's daughter equal beneficiaries with Gebhard. In the previous trusts, the two sisters had been given equal shares.

On Sept. 2, 2004, Eifrig wrote a notarized memo - now part of the Superior Court record - explaining why she had already given more money to her younger daughter.

Her older daughter, she wrote, "has not done any work for me to earn" the $50,000 she got. She'd refused to come help her at her apartment when Ardito had gone on two weeks' vacation that year - even though "I would pay her" to come. Gebhard had told her to come to Rhode Island instead, but "I couldn't manage in her cluttered home with my legal blindness and the fact she is frequently absent for social reasons."

Ardito deserved $20,000 more, she wrote, because "Francine is taking care of me daily and ensuring all my needs are met."

Gebhard didn't know about her mother's trust or that her younger sister held power of attorney for their mother until December 2005, when she arrived at her mother's for Christmas.

According to court testimony, Eifrig was in the habit of removing all of her financial papers from her apartment - and giving them to Ardito - when Gebhard came to visit. But since Gebhard had arrived early with no advance notice, the documents were in the apartment.
Upon discovering the papers, Gebhard became "irate," Ardito would later testify, and went to a store to photocopy them.

Late last April, Gebhard unexpectedly returned to her mother's apartment. She was broke, with only $20 to her name, she told her mother and Eifrig's sister, Ardito and her aunt testified. She said that she needed to stay with her mother for two weeks until she turned 59½ and could access money from her IRAs and 401(k).

Gebhard often claimed to be short of money, according to testimony from Ardito and her aunt. She'd divorced in 2001 and had gotten a property settlement of more than $1 million, plus two years of alimony, $4,167 per month.

At the time that she showed up at her mother's apartment last April, Gebhard owned three houses - one on Nayatt Road in Barrington, another on the water in Warren, and a rental property near Cooperstown, N.Y. But there were liens on her Rhode Island homes and a credit-card company was chasing her in court for non-payment of more than $11,000 in charges. She hadn't worked in years. After she lost a Democratic primary for Congress in 1992, Gov. Bruce Sundlun had given her a job as executive director of the Governor's Justice Commission. But in 1995, she was fired by Gov. Lincoln Almond, who called her "uncooperative."

On May 3, while staying at her mother's apartment, Gebhard told her mother's sister during a phone conversation that she was upset because Ardito had made an appointment to sign her mother into a nursing home.

The appointment she was talking about was for the very next day - but it wasn't for a nursing home, Ardito would testify. Ardito wanted to enroll her blind mother in senior daycare two days a week because she felt she was socially isolated.

When Ardito came by to pick up her mother for a daycare visit, Gebhard insisted on going along. Ardito was impressed with the program. There were people there who would help her mother play bingo and, since it was run by the county, the cost was just $21 per day.
Ardito signed the papers so her mother could give the place a try, but at a restaurant afterward, her mother announced that she didn't like the place. There was no way, she said, that she would go to "a nursing home."

Ardito became irate. She believed that her sister had used her mother's fear of nursing homes to turn her against her. She picked up a glass of water and threw it in Gebhard's face. Then she picked up another glass of water and hurled that at her sister, too.
The sisters left the restaurant separately, Eifrig with Gebhard.

Ardito went away for the weekend to visit a friend. She thought everyone needed to cool off, she said.

Back at Eifrig's apartment, Gebhard packed up her mother's clothes, canceled her apartment lease and changed her mother's mailing address.

By the end of the weekend, mother and daughter were driving to Rhode Island. They didn't tell anyone in the family they were going.

When Ardito went to check on her mother that Monday, no one was there. The closets were nearly empty. She tried repeatedly to call her sister but couldn't contact her. She went to the police in Virginia and filed two missing person reports. Then she froze all of her mother's bank accounts.

On May 14, Eifrig's younger sister, Hermine Borduas, who lives in Toronto, received a telephone call from Gebhard from a phone number she didn't recognize.

"What's new?" she asked her niece.

"Nothing is new," Gebhard replied.

"Well, isn't your mother with you?"

"Yes, she's with me and she's come with me because Francine wants to have her incarcerated and she was going to be put in a nursing home where people are treated like zombies and they're drugged …," the aunt said Gebhard told her.

Borduas asked to speak with her sister. Gebhard told her her mother was "so angry" she didn't want to talk to anyone.

Eifrig's sister would later testify that she told Gebhard during that phone conversation that Ardito had no plans to move her mother out of her apartment. But Gebhard got huffy, she said, and accused her of forming an alliance with Ardito. Then the phone line went dead. The aunt tried repeatedly to call Gebhard back. She never got an answer.

After arriving in Rhode Island, Gebhard took her mother to a lawyer in Portsmouth, Kenneth Dolbashian, to change Eifrig's will and trust. Eifrig asked him to remove her younger daughter as trustee of her trust and to replace her with her daughter Suzette. Dolbashian says he felt that Eifrig was being influenced by Gebhard, and, after calling Ardito, he says he refused to make any changes.

The mother and daughter went to another lawyer in Middletown, who prepared a new trust agreement. The new agreement made Gebhard co-trustee of her mother's trust and by far the largest beneficiary. Under the new trust, Ardito was to receive just $5,000.

On June 16, Gebhard and her mother went to a brokerage in Providence and asked an employee there to transfer Eifrig's account from Maryland to Providence. The accounts had been frozen by Ardito, and when the employee said the account couldn't be transferred, Gebhard and her mother said they wanted to withdraw all the cash. The brokerage worker would later testify that when she refused to give them the money, "Suzette told me that she was going to hold me personally responsible" and "said she would sue me."

Ardito hired her own lawyer to help her get her mother back to Virginia. They filed emergency papers to become temporary guardians of Eifrig. In Probate Court papers, they claimed that Eifrig was in the early stages of dementia and needed a substitute decision-maker.

On the same day, they went to the Superior Court and got a restraining order blocking Gebhard and Eifrig from changing Eifrig's will, trust, power of attorney and bank accounts until the guardianship issue was resolved. The restraining order, issued by Judge Stephen J. Fortunato Jr., also prohibited Gebhard from using any of her mother's credit cards.

Fortunato ordered Gebhard to allow family members to contact and visit with her mother.

Meanwhile, the probate court ordered a psychiatric examination for Eifrig to determine her mental status. The probate judge specified that Eifrig be taken for the test "by a third party car service" - not by either of her daughters.

A constable tacked notices of the court orders on Gebhard's homes in Barrington and Warren. But when Ardito showed up at her sister's Warren house to see her mother on Aug. 3 - in the company of a police officer - Gebhard told her she was "trespassing" and ordered her to get off her property. Eifrig refused to come outside to see her younger daughter, saying she feared she would be taken to a nursing home.

From the yard, the police officer called Fortunato and apprised him of the standoff. The judge said he wanted everyone back to his courtroom the next morning. When they reconvened in court, Gebhard's lawyer told the judge that Eifrig was living "at her own free will" with Gebhard. She didn't want to see Ardito or go back to Virginia.

Ardito's lawyer, Janet Mastronardi, countered that Eifrig was being mistreated by her older daughter.

"As early as last week, Your Honor, Ms. Gebhard took this 89-year-old woman to [a bank] in Rhode Island and was screaming at the bank manager to release funds from Virginia for her mother. … This is elder abuse of an 89-year-old woman, isolating her from the rest of her family, a woman who has clear signs of dementia and Alzheimer's," she told the court.

Gebhard's lawyer told Fortunato that she believed her client would allow her sister to visit her mother at her house. But Gebhard interjected, "Excuse me. My mother doesn't want her to set foot in the house."

"Well, that's a very strange turn of events after 13 years in Virginia," Fortunato said.

"Oh no, Your Honor," Gebhard said. "They are misrepresenting everything, and I have a lot of documents. Francine has closed accounts. Her husband has closed accounts. My mother has taken $2,000 penalties."

"Here I am talking about the visit and you want to talk about the money. Which is the most important here?" the judge asked.

"Francine has absolutely abused everything," said Gebhard, who holds a doctorate in social work. She said she was just "trying to be a decent daughter" in helping her mother "escape to Rhode Island."

Ardito countered: "She took my mother under the pretenses that when I took her to this senior daycare center, that I was putting her away in a nursing home, which is my mother's grandest fear …. My sister used that to get my mother to run."

Before adjourning the hearing, Fortunato ordered that a private room at Gebhard's house be made available for Ardito so that she could visit with her mother that afternoon. "Get your mother into the living room," he told Gebhard. He advised the lawyers to be present in an adjacent room "so that we don't have a fiasco unfold here."

But Suzette Gebhard would not let anyone in.

On Aug. 7, Mastronardi and Ardito got the probate court to appoint them temporary co-guardians of Eifrig.

The same day, Ardito filed a lawsuit in Superior Court accusing her sister of exploiting their mother and exerting "undue influence." The suit accused Gebhard of acting "in her own self-interest in the use of Laurette's credit cards," in her attempts to change their mother's will and in her failed efforts to withdraw "substantial funds" belonging to their mother.

On Aug. 8, Gibney began what would turn into a three-day hearing. Mastronardi accused Gebhard of "kidnapping" her mother.

Lawyer Richard A. Boren, representing Eifrig, told the judge his elderly client had informed him that she'd come to Rhode Island voluntarily.

"She was just sick and tired of Francine trying to control her. She didn't want Francine to say, 'you can't take this out of trust and go traveling,' didn't want Francine to say, 'you have to live with me now, you shouldn't live alone.…" Eifrig, said Boren, wanted her money back under her control and to live independently.

During the hearing, which Gebhard chose not to attend, the court heard testimony from Ardito, her aunt from Toronto and the brokerage employee who claimed Gebhard had threatened her. When Eifrig was called as a witness, she became very confused. At one point, she wandered into the judge's chambers. She told the court that she was living on her own in an apartment in Rhode Island, just a short walk away from a Safeway. There are no Safeway markets in Warren, but there was one near her Virginia home.

When asked where she had slept the previous night, she didn't remember that Gebhard had taken her to a Motel 6 in Seekonk.

"I've heard enough," Gibney said, cutting off further questioning of the elderly witness. "I've heard all I need to hear … This is a sick, toxic situation," the judge declared. "This is shameful."

Gibney immediately appointed lawyer Paula Cuculo to be guardian for Eifrig. She froze all of Eifrig's assets. Until further notice, only Cuculo would be allowed access to Eifrig's money. Gebhard, Gibney ordered, was to give Cuculo "unfettered access" to her mother.

But Gebhard did not obey the court order. When Cuculo went to Gebhard's house to see her ward, no one would come to the door.

Exasperated because her client would not follow the court's mandate, Gebhard's lawyer withdrew from the case.

As the stand-off continued, Boren sued Ardito, claiming she should be removed as trustee.

Cuculo started combing through Eifrig's financial and legal records. She ripped up the new trust that the Middletown lawyer had drawn up in late June, the one which made Gebhard trustee and the biggest beneficiary of her mother's estate. She shut off Eifrig's credit card, which Cuculo says was being used for entertainment by Eifrig and Gebhard, and for gas for Gebhard's car.

After a month of being stonewalled by Gebhard, Cuculo called the state Department of Elderly Affairs. A staff member told her she'd already been to the house and that Eifrig had come to the door and had told her she was fine, that she was happy living where she was.

Cuculo got the Elderly Affairs worker to go back to the house with her. They asked a Warren police officer to go with them. When they got there, they saw Gebhard's car in the driveway and heard a TV on, but no one would open the door.

Meanwhile, Gebhard and her mother - who had never gone for the court-ordered psychiatric exam - went away to Jamaica and on another trip to Montreal, using Gebhard's money.

Cuculo didn't know where they'd gone. She asked a constable to see if he could find Gebhard's car at T.F. Green Airport or at Logan, in Boston. She called the police in Richmond Springs, N.Y., to see if they were hiding out at Gebhard's rental property there. But no one could find them.

At the end of September, Cuculo asked Gibney to find Gebhard in contempt. Gebhard was sent an overnight letter telling her that if she failed to show up with her mother for the contempt hearing, she could be imprisoned and fined.

Neither Gebhard nor her mother appeared for the contempt hearing on Oct. 3. Gibney issued orders which would allow a sheriff or police officer to arrest Gebhard and her mother and bring them before the court if they were found in public.

In mid-November, Cuculo contacted a constable after hearing that Gebhard and Eifrig were back in Rhode Island. He told her that he wouldn't be able to catch them unless he spotted them in public on a weekday when court was in session - between 8:30 a.m. and 4:30 p.m.

Cuculo called the sheriff's department and "they told me they weren't set up to do any type of surveillance."

"I became so frustrated with the system," she said, that "I decided that the only way I'll get this woman is to have a stakeout or move the case into the criminal sector, where we could break down the door."

Cuculo went back to her contact at the Department of Elderly Affairs and asked for advice. Could this be a case of elder abuse that the attorney general's office might investigate? she asked.

The department put her in touch with prosecutors in the Elder Abuse Unit of the Rhode Island attorney general's office.

On Jan. 26, the prosecutor who heads that unit contacted the Warren Police Department to tell them that Suzette Gebhard was refusing to allow people into her home at 7 Stonegate Rd., where she was secreting her elderly mother. Investigators wanted to check on the mother's well-being, the prosecutor said, and were going to try to speak with Eifrig the following Monday morning.

At 10 a.m. on Monday, Jan. 29, the police went with Cuculo, Ardito's lawyer and the Elderly Affairs caseworker to Gebhard's house in Warren. They knocked on the door and demanded to see her mother. Gebhard refused to open up. The police told Gebhard that if she didn't open the door, she'd be arrested. She still wouldn't let anyone in. A short time later, an arrest warrant was issued. Firefighters were summoned and they knocked down the door.

The police handcuffed Gebhard and took her to court for arraignment. She spent the night at the ACI.

Inside the house, Cuculo found Eifrig sitting on her bed, dressed in slacks and a sweater. The bed was unmade. The room was a mess, as was much of the rest of the house. Eifrig was upset. She refused to put on her coat. She was not going to leave the house, she said.

Cuculo told the EMTs to pick up Eifrig and cart her out of the house on the chair-type gurney they had brought with them. Wrapped in a blanket, Laurette Eifrig was taken by ambulance to Roger Williams Medical Center to be checked out. A few days later, she was transferred to Capitol Ridge. No family members were allowed visits.

Gibney ordered an immediate mental evaluation for Eifrig.

On Feb. 6, Dr. Andrew S. Rosenzweig performed a mental competency examination on Eifrig.

He diagnosed her with "moderate dementia due to Alzheimer's Disease." He said she needed a guardian.

Eifrig "has had severe psychosocial stressors," the psychiatrist reported. He noted that her daughters can't visit her, "one daughter is accused of financial abuse" and the "patient was living in a malodorous disheveled state."

He said Eifrig "has poor insight and judgment, poor … recall." She complains that 'They made me a ward for no reason.' "

The psychiatrist said that Eifrig "needs community support" and someone "to protect her welfare/vulnerability," as well as her finances. Eifrig, he said, has made it clear that she wants her money to be "used for my benefit."

Shortly after Eifrig's move to the assisted-living facility, Gibney issued an order allowing her daughters to visit her, but not together. They could go separately, but only in the company of Cuculo or Boren. There was one stipulation, too: they were not to talk about each other in front of their mother.

For now, the judge has also banned the daughters from calling their mother or sending her letters.

Boren has complained to Gibney that Gebhard has persisted in bad-mouthing her sister. The judge issued a stern warning: if this happens one more time, she will not be allowed to see her mother at all.

On Feb. 9, Gebhard was supposed to show up in court on the misdemeanor charge of obstructing a police officer. She failed to appear. An arrest warrant was issued for her. Several days later, she surrendered and was released pending trial, now set for April 20.

Her new lawyer, James T. McCormick, says the police obstruction charge that Gebhard faces is meritless and that whatever she did for her mother was out of love for her.

In mid-February, Francine Ardito and her 27-year-old daughter flew up from Virginia to visit Eifrig at the $175-a-day residence that is now her home. Since they hadn't been able to be with her on her 90th birthday, they brought chocolate cupcakes and a bottle of Bailey's Irish Cream for a belated celebration. They gave Eifrig a new radio. Cuculo described it as "a happy, tearful reunion" and said Eifrig asked them why they hadn't visited her more often.
Afterward, Eifrig told Cuculo that she wanted to move someplace closer to her younger daughter and granddaughter. What about daughter Suzette? Cuculo asked. She could come visit her in Virginia, Cuculo said Eifrig told her.

Several days later, Gebhard came to visit her mother. Afterwards, Boren phoned Cuculo. Eifrig had told him that she still "hasn't quite forgiven Francine" and that she wanted to remain in Rhode Island.

Boren went to check out an assisted-living facility in Barrington, near Gebhard. He estimates that he has spent 50 to 60 hours on Eifrig's case. His services are costing her $330 per hour.

In recent weeks, Eifrig has told lawyers that she realizes she needs some assistance because of her memory problems but that she would not like either of her daughters to help her in her new life here because she doesn't want either of them to feel superior or "shunted aside."

She'd like to see her daughters more often, says Boren. But neither daughter has visited their mother much since her move to the assisted-living facility. Ardito has come just once, Gebhard only twice.

Laurette Eifrig likes her new home. At Capitol Ridge, there's a 30-minute "happy hour" on Friday afternoons. Residents get red wine in paper cups. Her private bedroom is sun-filled, freshly painted and spanking clean. She has her own bathroom and TV. Eifrig, who's never liked to cook, says she likes the meals but misses her TV dinners.

"Every place has its good things and its not-so-good things," she says. "It's very comfortable and the people are very nice here. They don't insert themselves into your business. They're here to help. I guess it's become my second home. I don't know where else I would go. … My dear friends are dead. I've buried everybody who was really friendly with me. I'm on my own."

Rosenzweig, in a new report filed with the court, says he thinks Eifrig should stay put. During his most recent visit, Eifrig told him, "I like Rhode Island" and that she wants to stay at Capitol Ridge.

"I feel it is, in fact, preferable that she remain in the assisted-living facility here with a guardian that will involve her in decisions of importance and yet protect her from financial and other abuse or neglect," he said.

The doctor said he believes that visits by Eifrig's daughters should continue to be supervised "to prevent undue influence that could adversely affect [her] psychological well-being."

Ardito wants to move her mother back to Virginia, to an assisted-living facility near where she and her daughter live. She's found a place with special programs for the sight-impaired and for Alzheimer's patients.

Gebhard has expressed a desire to have her mother move back to Warren with her, if her mother would like to come.

The sisters are both appealing Cuculo's appointment as their mother's guardian. A trial on the appeal has been scheduled for May 7. Eifrig will be there to testify, says Boren.
Since the sisters can't agree, it will be Judge Gibney who will decide where 90-year-old Laurette Eifrig lives for the rest of her life.

Editor's note: Tracy Breton, a recipient of a Rosalynn Carter Mental Health Journalism Fellowship for 2006-2007, is writing an intermittent series of stories about elder abuse and exploitation.

Copyright 2007. Used with permission from The Providence Journal.

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